Carrer Interview Jelena Brankovic
For Jelena, the Master in Higher Education program was an excellent starting point for her career.
Jelena Branković is currently a PhD student at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG), at Ghent University. She graduated from the Higher Education Master Programme (HEEM) jointly delivered by the University of Oslo, the University of Tampere, and the University of Aveiro in 2010 and holds a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature obtained from the University of Belgrade.
After obtaining Master’s in Higher Education, she was a researcher at the Centre for Education Policy in Belgrade, where she focused on higher education in the Western Balkans. She joined the CHEGG team in November 2013. In the interview Jelena reflects on her Master programme experience and the role it played in her career so far.
What made you choose the Master programme in Higher Education?
I used to be involved in the Student Union while at the University of Belgrade. That is when I became interested in all sorts of issues related to higher education. After graduation I got my first higher education related job, I became the national coordinator of the European Union’s Tempus programme in Serbia, which is a programme supporting higher education reforms through international cooperation. It was at that point I realised that if I wanted to pursue a career in higher education, I needed to deepen and broaden my knowledge. That is how I ended up in HEEM.
How has what you learned within the Higher Education programme helped you in your career?
First, it helped me better understand my prior experience, which I think was crucial, especially in the beginning. It also helped me decide what I wanted to do in higher education, because there are so many things one can do. For instance, you can work as a policy maker or policy adviser, you can work in university management or administration, you can do research on higher education, you can be a consultant in higher education projects, and so on. Perhaps it was because I found research as something closer to my aspirations, or it was the fact that HEEM programme was more geared towards that type of career, I eventually decided to pursue the research path. And I think that the master programme was an excellent starting point for such a career. Upon graduation I was offered a research position at the Centre for Education Policy in Belgrade where I spent three and a half years working in the field of higher education. Doing a PhD was an obvious next step. Today when I look back at what HEEM gave me, I feel very thankful.
What were the highlights and challenges of your experience as a student?
My academic background prior to HEEM was in the humanities. Studying language and literature gives one a great perspective on things like language, culture, the world of art, history, and in a way that perspective never leaves you, regardless of your future career. I had also been a student activist and later involved in higher education reforms through Tempus and all that meant a great deal to me, both personally and professionally. It was invaluable in terms of gaining a better understanding of how higher education works, but also of what it means to be socially and politically engaged. However, there is a fine line between being a student activist or involved in policy work and approaching higher education from social science perspective. I believe that my greatest challenge had to do with the lack of adequate academic training in social sciences, on the one hand, and especially this shift from higher education policy and practice to higher education research, on the other. Apart from the right knowledge, social science research requires a particular mindset. This meant that I had a lot to learn, but also a lot to unlearn. At least that was how I experienced it.
Regarding highlights, there have been many. First, I was lucky enough to be in an Erasmus Mundus master programme, which meant that I got to experience living and studying in several European countries and I believe that was a very important part of the experience. Academically, although challenging, the programme and the learning environment it provided were very stimulating and rewarding and I really enjoyed that part. I very much liked that the programme was interdisciplinary, so we had to look at higher education through the lenses of political science, sociology, economics, history, philosophy, pedagogy, etc. and I like to think of this is one of the strongest assets not only of the programme, but of higher education as a field of study. It is an incredibly promising avenue for cross-fertilisation of different disciplinary approaches. Our class was also very diverse, with people coming to from more than a dozen different countries from all over the world. I met many new people during those two years as a HEEM student and started some wonderful friendships.
What advice would you give to students and recent graduates trying to develop a career in Higher Education?
Use your time as master students to explore your future career options, start or grow your professional network, read, think, write and, very importantly – discuss. Not only did I gain a lot from our teachers, but I also learned a lot from my classmates. If you want to pursue a career in academia (or anywhere else, for that matter), learning how to build, communicate, defend and improve your ideas is essential. Maybe do an internship during summer and see how your studies may be relevant for your future work. But most importantly, try to have as much fun as possible while doing all this. In order to be successful in developing a career in higher education, the most important thing is that enjoy what you do.